Sunday, 16 January, 2022

Food: why gluten-free is far from being a mainstream fad

Eat healthy. A leitmotif that has invaded consumers’ fridges and pushed agrifood companies to reinvent themselves in recent years, particularly with regard to organic products. What about gluten-free? Let’s go back a few years, to the mid-2010s. Several personalities, including tennis champion Novak Djokovic, actress Jennifer Aniston or singer Lady Gaga, confide in their conversion to a gluten-free diet. Lately, even chefs are interested in it, like Pierre Hermé, who is learning gluten-free pastry.

As a result, products have multiplied and have reached hyper and supermarkets, beyond the more confidential shelves of specialized stores. Auchan, Leclerc and other major brands have stepped into the breach by launching their own ranges (eg: “Better living without gluten” at Auchan). Sales take off. Praised by some, the gluten-free diet is just as much criticized by others when it does not address a health problem. Enough to refocus the market today on its initial target?

“There was a peak in the gluten-free market five years ago,” confirms Julie Avrillier, general secretary of the dietetic sector within the French union for specialized nutrition. “Between 2015 and 2018, sales in supermarkets jumped by 35% in volume. But in 2018, the market did not evolve

than 4% “, she specifies. In 2019, the market weighed around 90 million euros in mass distribution in France. Remember that purchases of organic food products reached 9.7 billion euros in 2018, nearly half of which in supermarkets. Despite a fairly marked boom until 2018, the gluten-free market therefore remains a niche.

And for good reason. The gluten-free diet first responds to the specific problems of celiac patients: they are intolerant to gluten, that is to say to this mass of proteins found in certain cereals such as wheat. “It is estimated that around 1% of the French population the number of people affected but only 10% to 20% would be screened,” adds Julie Avrillier. The recognition of the medical world vis-à-vis celiac disease – the issue of gluten sensitivity is however still poorly defined – is also reflected in the reimbursement of gluten-free products by Social Security, up to around forty euros per month.

A niche market

“The question we want to answer is how to design a life with gustatory pleasure and dietary constraints”, explains Thierry Chiesa, from Ekibio, a subsidiary of Léa Compagnie Biodiversité. Reassurance about taste and quality is essential because gluten-free consumption remains limited in France. “Gluten-free is more popular with people who are actually gluten intolerant”, believes Pascale Hébel, director of the Consumption division at Crédoc, who has not noted a sharp increase in this mode of consumption. “Especially since in France, there is a fairly cereal diet and bread is very present in the food bowl.”

Gluten-free bread is unsurprisingly a flagship product for companies, such as for example Dr Schär in France. “It’s a real technical feat,” says Laura Salaun, French head of medical affairs for Dr Schär, one of the leaders in the sector. For this company, the Hexagon represents however only the 5e country in Europe with 23 million euros in sales out of 350 million at European level. The gluten-free diet is thus much more anchored in Italy. “The diagnosis is more developed and the reimbursement package for products higher”, explains Laura Salaun. While the French market is far from being as developed, innovations continue to expand the offer of gluten-free products, increasing the number of alternatives for gluten intolerant people and business opportunities.

Specialized food at the forefront

“It is a very restrictive market for companies because consumer safety is a priority,” however argues Julie Avrillier. Avoiding any trace of gluten imposes strict rules on production. Securing gluten-free raw materials, R&D to achieve gluten-free recipes, investments in production … All of this affects the prices of gluten-free products, which are generally more expensive than their classic equivalents, she admits. Constraints which explain that thehe companies already present in specialized food are often major players in gluten-free. This is the case with Dr Schär. This Italian-Austrian company has been targeting people with special nutritional needs for forty years and all its products are gluten-free.

“We are the main contributor to the growth of the market”, assures Laura Salaun. With 35% of the market share in the dietetic department in supermarkets in France, Dr Schär is a heavyweight. And this, even though the mention “gluten-free” has swarmed on packaging with the little “bubble” operated around this diet two or three years ago. “The good thing was more choice on the shelf for consumers but the bad point was excessive popularization and consumers may have heard nasty things about the diet.”

Controversies over product composition

The composition of gluten-free products has in particular been singled out. As of 2016, 60 million consumers regretted the presence of additives in certain foods and wondered about their “better for health” side when there is no gluten intolerance. At the end of January, the UFC-Que Choisir returned to the question “when should you really do without gluten?” “The challenge is to offer healthy products. We must not make gluten-free if it is to make fatty products,” insists Thierry Chiesa, CEO of Ekibio. This subsidiary of Léa Compagnie Biodiversité has developed in organic and plant-based food and generates 100 million euros in sales, including 80 million in food. With its two brands – Le Pain des fleurs and Ma Vie sans gluten, with an evocative name -, sales of the gluten-free products it offers reached 29 million euros.

To reassure consumers, companies in the dietetic sector that manufacture gluten-free products are now committed to displaying the NutriScore, a logo that provides information on the nutritional quality of a product. “We wanted to bring a qualitative side by offering gluten-free and organic products”, explains Fabrice Fy, co-founder of the young company Nature & Cie which was created with this in mind. Products guaranteed without harmful additives. Distributed in specialized stores, the small brand has a turnover of 3 million euros. “In 2018, there was a 10% increase in organic gluten-free products,” says Julie Avrillier. Combining the strike force of organic and the nutritional properties of gluten-free, this is perhaps the new royal road to consolidate this very specific market.